By Jeremy Havardi , Author and journalist. He tweets here
John Kerry seems to think that resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict would arrest the growth of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). At least that is what he implied in a set of extraordinary comments last week.
Speaking at a ceremony to mark Eid, Kerry called for a two state solution to be implemented with haste.
He then added: “As I went around and met with people in the course of our discussions about the (ISIS) coalition, there wasn’t a leader I met with in the region who didn’t raise with me spontaneously the need to try to get peace between Israel and the Palestinians, because it was a cause of recruitment and of street anger and agitation”.
Leaving aside the complex question of Palestinian statehood, it is not hard to appreciate how risible his comments were.
Firstly, the terrorists of ISIS reject any negotiated settlement between Israel and her neighbours. They view the Jewish state as a hated symbol of western decadence and power, an ‘infidel’ intrusion in the heart of the Islamic ummah.
Nothing short of Israel’s destruction will satisfy these fanatics. What they seek is a Sunni based Caliphate ruled by Sharia Law, a medieval theocracy which subjugates or kills all those under its control. Handing the West Bank to Mahmoud Abbas will not alter that.
Secondly, it is far from obvious that Muslims who join ISIS are primarily motivated by the ‘Palestine question’. This is certainly true of the recent surge in recruitment from South East Asia, an area with little traditional interest in the Middle East conflict.
In recent years, however, countries like Indonesia and Malaysia have come under the influence of radical Islamist preachers with their particularly venomous anti-Western message.
This points to the third reason why Kerry’s comments were so myopic, namely that they ignore the real recruiting sergeants for ISIS among America’s Islamic allies. For years, donors in Saudi Arabia and Qatar have provided lavish amounts of material support to ISIS, Hamas and other jihadist outfits.
They have also given these terror groups an ideological structure by promoting their intolerant brand of militant Wahhabism.
As General Jonathan Shaw, a former assistant chief of the Defence staff, recently pointed out, ISIS is simply “a violent expression of Wahhabist Salafism.” The monster that Arab nations helped spawn has now come back to haunt them.
Nouri Al-Maliki, Iraq’s former Prime Minister, should not escape censure either. The Shi’ite leader helped alienate his country’s Sunni population with a series of divisive interventions.
His heavy handed approach towards the opposition, using security services that were packed with his own supporters, led to accusations of authoritarianism and sectarian rule.
By alienating the Sunni Arab militia, he encouraged defections and weakened his country’s defences during the recent ISIS advance.
It isn’t just about western allies. Syria too must take some of the blame, having previously facilitated the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq to help target American troops. Many of these troops now form part of ISIS’s ‘foreign legion’.
Finally, one must mention the Obama administration’s own policies. Many informed voices argue that America’s failure to support the Free Syrian Army in 2011 created a vacuum that has now been filled by the extreme jihadists.
But whether we blame the Gulf States, Iraq, Syria or the US, it’s clear that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict scarcely figures in these calculations. It is simply peripheral to the savagery now unfolding across the Middle East.
The gory and repellent beheadings of the Yazidis, the ethnic cleansing of non-Muslims, the mass rape of women and the enslavement of children are not expressions of rage against the Jewish state. Instead they are manifestations of a warped death cult being propagated by bloodthirsty, totalitarian theocrats.
Kerry’s comments are therefore spectacularly ill informed. But they reflect the narrative given by Arab leaders who naturally want to shift the focus from themselves to the West and Israel. This obsessive attempt to blame ‘the other’ has become one of the most ubiquitous features of Arab political discourse.
Put simply, the blundering Kerry has failed to appreciate a most fundamental point. It is the region’s surging extremism, reflected in ISIS, that rules out a Palestinian state, not the other way round.